On the far side of New Market Square the door to the Felger mansion, the Lingdon headquarters of the richest merchant venturing family on Gaia, swung open. Gisel Matah touched the butt of her automatic in its shoulder holster as she stepped away from the customers at the vegetable stall she’d used for concealment. Her note had worked. Jeeze - at last! Two men descended the mansion’s steps into the late afternoon sun, pausing in the narrow forecourt behind the iron railings to look about them. One was her messenger, the other a tall and well proportioned fellow with fair hair showing from under an unadorned hat. About twenty, she’d guess - near her own age. He had to be Yohan Felger, the man she was after.
The stall-keeper stepped out from behind his wares to follow her to the corner of the barrow. "Now wot you want to look at, girl?"
She scanned the square quickly to see if anyone else had taken an interest in the two men’s appearance. Zagdorf’s men had to be here somewhere - they were watching the Felgers. She picked up a cabbage from the stall and spoke in her best city accent. "Ow much?"
She’d need to argue the price to fit her servant-girl disguise, a kirtle of homespun wool and travel-stained jacket, with a simple coif covering her long dark hair. "Four Groats each? My Lor’ they mus’ be from ’is Majesty’s own garden."
"Don’t be so cheeky, my girl, or I’ll box yer ears, I will." The stall-keeper’s smiling eyes belied his threat. Gisel felt a flash of affection for him - just a common citizen of Lingdon, a city from an era five hundred years earlier than the one she belonged to. A city of dark cobbled streets overshadowed by the upper stories of houses that sliced up the sky, with its commerce hauled on pack horses and ox-drawn drays to sailing ships that moored in the east river docks. Life was brutal here, but people loved their families, were loyal to friends, and could sometimes be kind to strangers. They faced every disaster with a cheeky, deprecating humor. She liked them, but were they worth dying for?
"Would yer change yer tune if I paid for three?"
"About time, I’d say. You damn near wore out enough greens for a gallon o’ soup with yer pokin’ and pickin’."
Gisel handed over the coins, her eye on the young man and the fellow carrying out her errand. The mansion behind them loomed over the street as if it owned it, which it likely did. It was taller and more ornately decorated with stone carvings and gargoyles than the mansions and town houses ranging around the other three sides of the square. Its lofty facade stood almost high enough to hide the Temple of the Eternal Flame on the hill behind - a hill occupied by St. Paul’s in another city, in the world Gisel had come from.
She didn’t answer the man’s last jibe - at last she’d picked out her enemy’s watchers in the square. At a stall draped with cheap linen and used clothes, the stall-keepers reacted as the mansion’s door slammed shut. The oldest seemed to direct two others, one to hurry away among the market stalls, the other to pick up a knobby ended stick and follow Yohan Felger and the messenger down the street. They stepped out like soldiers - had to be Commandante Zagdorf’s new Imperial bully-boys.
Gisel picked up her purchase. Threading her way between the stalls she hurried toward the Felger mansion to follow Felger and the messenger. When she caught sight of them again they were walking at a smart pace toward the lane leading to the Brook Steps. Zagdorf’s man tailed them, about fifty yards behind. She reached a hand behind the cabbages she cradled, into her dress to activate her throat mike. "Are you there, Marc?" She was glad to have back-up, but not so pleased to be working with an ex-lover.
"I saw them, Gisel."
"I’m following Felger. Where did the other man go?"
"I’m tailing him. I think he’s going for reinforcements."
She hurried to the lane, hoping her ruse as a servant rushing the cabbages to an impatient cook held. Zagdorf’s man strode along ahead of her as Felger and his companion took the turning into Goldsmith Alley. A quick good look behind -no one following. She speeded her step - not too much - a servant girl wouldn’t run. But a servant girl wouldn’t have this crawling feeling down her spine. She’d found the body of a murdered agent two days before. Breathe, Gisel - keep it cool. You’ve done this before.Zagdorf’s man paused at the end of the street until the unsuspecting duo got out of sight. He seemed to know his business. As long as he didn’t notice he was being followed as well. When a group of tradesmen crossed the street between them, she walked on quickly to catch up. A man and woman exchanged some comment as Gisel stepped across the street’s stinking refuse to go around them. Careful, girl - ease up - don’t act out of character.
As she gained on the watcher she placed a hand into her waist pack. She carried a hypodermic loaded with phencyclidine she could administer with one hand. The only safe place to act was in Goldsmith Alley. It was usually quiet, and with this brisk wind from the river, cold enough that no one would tarry in doorways or dawdle about their business. Around the corner, Gisel caught up to Zagdorf’s man. He barely gave her a glance. She walked on past him as he waited in a doorway for Felger and the messenger to get out of sight. When they disappeared from view, the street was deserted. The watcher sped up to pass her. Gisel dropped the bundle of cabbages between his feet.
As the fellow swerved aside to dodge them she kicked his ankle. With an angry cry he went down into the alley’s muck. She stooped over him as if trying to help. With a slap of her hand she jabbed the needle into his arm. He gave a groan and slumped face-forward into the mud.
Gisel rolled him onto his side, and sprang to her feet. She hiked her skirts, a quick sprint and she was half a street away.
She slowed to a walk as she reached the next intersection. Yohan Felger and the messenger were just leaving Goldsmith Alley where it opened out on the foul smelling river bank. Unlike the alley, the embankment was thronged. Some travelers descended the steps to reach rowboats and wherries waiting below, while others stepped onto the embankment after disembarking. As she made for him, her quarry halted at the head of Brook Steps and began to gaze about.
This was her first opportunity to size up the young man whose name she’d only heard three days before. Meister Felger wasn’t wary enough - he’d never noticed the man following him. On the other hand, he was a strapping fellow, and had obviously recognized her message entailed more than a quick stroll down the street. He wore a thick woolen cloak, which he’d need on the river and, she suspected, a weapon concealed beneath its folds.
She slowed her pace while she weighed the situation.
Were the Felgers the right partners for Iskander - was this fellow the right one to hear their proposition? Her people desperately needed to build up a technological infrastructure before their Earth-made equipment wore out. Her own father was the engineer directing Iskander’s development program, but she wasn’t sure his idea to advance all the citizens together would hold up when their hi-tech started to break down. The Felgers could cause him to switch to a corporate oligarchy like Earth’s; merely making the richest inhabitants here even richer. But unless they found capable partners with access to scarce resources, they’d be stuck in this pre-industrial age. If they couldn’t strengthen their military position before the Empire launched an attack, they were doomed.
She stared hard at Felger’s face when he turned his attention from the river; as if she could penetrate his mind to learn answers to her questions. Either he would support Iskander against the Empire, or betray them. Which? She’d never learn the answer unless she allowed him into her life.
"I don’t see him, your Honor." Gisel heard the messenger say.
Yohan Felger gave an impatient snort. "You’re sure he’s not here?"
Gisel hurried up to them, knowing they were expecting to find Mawgan, her coxswain. In this male dominated society she’d had to get a man to hire a messenger. Felger turned toward the shops and taverns lining the river road, barely glancing at her.
"Well, I cannot wait here for him all day. Perhaps we’ll find him in one of the taverns hereabouts."
Gisel decided to conceal her identity behind her assumed accents a few minutes longer.
She walked past to the head of the steps, and then halted with a little cry. She pretended to trip and stumbled toward him.